Giving offense

by Carl Dyke

As I get more and more drug into the world of blogging I find exciting new friends to swap ideas with. This is a great pleasure. I also find all sorts of tender feelings to trample upon, virtual shoulders covered in virtual chips. I’m still thinking this all through, although, as a lifelong bull in a china shop, I’ve already got some firm ideas on the subject (see, e.g., this post and this page).

It strikes me in a half-baked way (I’m not even sure if I’m just talking about the blogosphere or I have a larger historical point to make) that there are two basic ways to give offense, with corresponding ways to manage courtesy. The first is to offend a role, position, or status with which the person is identified. The second is to offend the individual as such. Following Durkheim (tongue in cheek, since he ended up regretting this formulation), I’ll call these mechanical offense and organic offense. I am not making fun here, although I am personally very hard to offend and emotionally baffled by easy offense-taking. Both mechanical and organic offense are ‘robust’ in the sense that they connect back to the deepest ways in which our societies assign sacred values.

The core of mechanical offense is an idea of special privilege or “honor” within a status hierarchy as exemplified by “nobility.” Those nobles guarded their special privilege with a fierce sense of honor backed up by ritual violence (the duel). One had to be really careful what one said and how one said it to nobles because they were really chippy and spent a lot of time training with the weaponry at hand. Elaborate rules of courtesy were devised to intercept any possible infraction. As the nobles lost control of the means of legitimate state violence during the modernizing process (I’m talking, as usual, mostly about western Europe here) their private honor became even more chippy and even more ritually violent, until eventually you just weren’t a man in central Europe if you couldn’t ‘give satisfaction’ in a duel, weren’t in a dueling society and didn’t have duelling scars on your cheeks.

I’ve noticed a fair amount of dueling on the blogosphere. In a nietzschean way I kind of enjoy it as an enactment of a robuster form of self-assertion. But the core of any taking of offense is insecurity; and most of the offending and defending I see is of the second, more overtly insecure type which I’ve called organic offense. Here it is the individual her/himself who is considered sacred and inviolable, not their role, position or status. Accordingly, the person may assign offendable meaning to anything about her/himself whatsoever; in principle, only she/he can decide when a line has been crossed. This makes any detailed system of courtesy like the nobles had impossible.

It is therefore courteous to announce what one’s delicate areas are, but in the free flow of the web such announcements would need to be constantly refreshed or they would be left outside the reasonable attention of any given interlocutor. This would create quite a lot of clutter. On a blog where there may be dozens of commenters it is unrealistic to suppose that each new one would ascertain the personal rules and boundaries of all the others before posting. As a result, there’s a lot of casual giving and taking of offense, as well as clustering of offense communities. There’s also a lot of not saying anything but ‘excuse me, pardon me, coming through’ as all of the possible hurt feelings are anticipated and intercepted. The fussbudget veto is powerful and the pressure to self-edit is enormous. And the aggregate of offendables is virtually infinite; it may be impossible to say anything that would not offend someone.

All of this ties back to a more general feature of modern societies, again diagnosed by Durkheim. As traditional role and status hierarchies break down and the division of labor creates massive networks of functional interdependence, the individual becomes the focus of societies’ sense of sacredness. We just don’t know enough about each other to regulate each other, so self-regulation becomes the norm (within general systems like professional ethics and civic morals). These new morally-empowered individuals therefore enjoy all the personal sense of entitlement that the old nobilities did, only now there are millions of them, all out there with their fierce sense of personal honor, their chippiness and their sense of violence when violated. Yet it’s hard to really feel special when what makes one so is shared by everyone else.

What a mess.


7 Responses to “Giving offense”

  1. Maybe it was still a bit moist in the middle, but I wouldn’t call it half-baked. As blogposts are a bit more like brownies, it was almost overcooked.
    I should have read it at the time as it does explain other things you’ve said.
    These days, I tend to think about some of those people who occasionally make online communication difficult. Trolls, obviously. But also curmudgeons and “hard chargers.” Yes, much of it has to do with lack of confidence. And a peculiar type of “intellectual inferiority complex” which is almost the mirror image of what I conceive as the impostor syndrome.
    Basically, the effect is that of the “flame war.”

  2. Better the cooked than the raw?

    I agree with you about the curmudgeons, despite my own overlap with that kind of difficulty. I’m sticking to my point that an excess of sensitivity is just as chilling of good discussion as an excess of insensitivity. Inferiority complexes and impostor syndromes play out in both performances, but the root problem is the same: the conversation is not what it’s about, it’s about someone’s delicate feelings. Which has its place, just not when we want to figure out, say, how to more effectively develop and manage social media strategies. 😉

    Am I really this narrow-minded? Nah, I spend my days managing students’ sensitivities so I can teach them some stuff around the edges of their defenses. I just dream of a place and a posse where all that misdirection isn’t necessary.


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